Ge Yang – Q&A

Ge Yang – Q&A

Editor’s Note: We asked each of the QSTORM investigators to respond to a set of questions we thought could help web visitors understand a little bit more about the personal side of working in science.
These are Ge’s responses.

Q. In what ways do you feel that you don’t fit the stereotype of a scientist?

Well, my doctoral training was in engineering (micro-robotics), so I do not quite see myself entirely as a scientist. Scientists are interested in understanding why and how, whereas engineers try to create something that does not exist.

Q. Was there a particular person or life experience that caused your interest in your area of expertise? Who and what?

My postdoctoral training advisor, Gaudenz Danuser, has been a role model for me. He is currently a professor of cell biology at Harvard. He received his Ph.D. in computer vision, which is a field of computer science that aims to use computer software to analyze and understand images. Since then he switched to the field of cell biology and did very good work on using computer software to analyze the complex dynamics of biological processes in cells.

Q. How would your friends describe you?

I am not quite sure. I would imagine that they think me as someone who is serious – perhaps too serious – about his work, and who works really hard.

It is quite possible that they may see me as someone who does not really have a life. But life can get really busy when you start as an assistant professor at a university that sets very high expectations.

Q. What quirks do you have or are you known for?

I tend to think life is too short. So when I make a decision after careful thinking, I try to make sure that it happens as soon as possible. I tend to rush others and myself to get things done fast.

I am not sure if this really qualifies as a quirk. But I know this type of thinking and behavior is often poorly received or tolerated at my home.

Q. What are you most passionate about in life?

Many of us working in biology are humbled by the beauty and complexity of biological processes. In my case, we try to understand how material gets transported inside neurons for their survival and function. Understanding this process may help us to understand a large class of neurodegerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Millions are affected by these diseases. But currently few – if any – can be cured.

Q. What are your main interests or hobbies outside of your work?

I like classical music. My daughter gets professional training in playing violin. She is a member of a local youth symphony orchestra. As part of her extracurricular activities, we sometimes go to see performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). But I must admit that we do not get to do this often since I am always short on time.

Q. How you would describe your work to an 8 yr old?

We use microscopes to follow what is happening inside a live cell from the brain. This helps us to understand why some of us get sick and how we can come up with a treatment.

Q. What led you to this particular collaboration?

We did not know each other until we were invited in May 2010 by NSF to attend the Idea Lab on biological imaging in a nice but remote conference center near Washington DC. A large number of researchers applied to attend this event. From these applicants, NSF selected a group and asked them to stay together for five days to brainstorm and to team up to write proposals. This was how I got to know and work with the other investigators of my team.

Q. Do you remember a particular moment when the pieces of the puzzle clicked together?

Well, at the NSF Idea Lab we started talking spontaneously about what we could do together. At the end, we felt that the plan makes sense and that we should go ahead and propose it. That is what we did. I am glad that the reviewers think it is a good idea that can be funded.

Q. How would you describe the goal of this collaboration in one sentence in non-technical terms. OK, maybe two sentences.

The goal is to develop advanced imaging technology that allows us to follow, with very high resolution and deep penetration, biological processes in live experimental animal models.

Q. How do you hope this collaboration, if successful, will advance your research? (non-technical terms, 1-2 sentences).

It will make it possible for me to follow the movement of small cargoes being transported inside neuronal cells for very long period of time at very high resolution. This will be critical to understanding how this process is controlled and how it can go wrong.

Q. How do you hope it will advance your field? (non-technical terms, 1-2 sentences).

It will provide a very powerful imaging technique that can be used by many others in my field in the study of intracellular transport of material inside both neuronal and non-neuronal cells.

Q. Why should a non-scientist care about what the QSTORM team is trying to do?

I would not think what we are doing is necessarily more important than other research projects.

I do hope, however, that we can tell our fellow citizens why and how we work on this project so that they understand the investment they are making in scientific research is worthwhile. Specifically in our case, if we successfully achieve what we propose to do, we will have a very powerful way to monitor the live processes in experimental models. This opens the door to all kinds of discoveries about the related physiology and disease mechanisms.

Also, I feel that it is important for us to tell our fellow citizens that our research projects provide highly valuable training opportunities to our graduate students. Although there is uncertainty in the scientific outcome of the project, the educational outcome is much more assured.

Q. What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of the QSTORM project? How do you cope with the obstacles and failures along the way?

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the project is to get the switchable quantum dots to work in our experimental models (cells, fruit flies, zebra fish) under live conditions. I would not be surprised that we will fail many times. But hopefully we get wiser each time in knowing where and how we can improve. In the worst possible scenario, we at least will know whether this approach is feasible.

When we designed this project, we carefully divided it into multiple steps. This almost guarantees that we will get some very useful results. However, I cannot predict how successful we are in terms of reaching all the goals.

Q. Where do you find inspiration when challenged with a difficult problem?

Usually I will go outside and take a long walk by myself. This helps me to focus and think more clearly. It also helps me to look at the problem from different perspectives. For example, is this really a problem that worth solving? – Meaning will solving it truly benefit science, or is it just an interesting and hard problem? A problem that is just interesting or hard is not necessarily a good problem. We have to use our time wisely.

I’ve read many biographies of good scientists and engineers. I feel I’ve learned a lot from their life experience. I always find inspiration in their experience in solving challenging problems.

Yet another way for me to find inspiration to solve difficult problems is to talk to my colleagues. They may not come up with the right solution. But often times they help me to look at the problem from new perspectives.